Reigns: Three Kingdoms Review – Live Fast, Die Repeatedly

Reigns: Three Kingdoms Review

Life in the Han dynasty was apparently pretty brutal. At the very least, death was around every corner for its rulers. Such is the lesson imparted by Reigns: Three Kingdoms. But don’t worry! As far as brutal murders go, most of yours will be quick and painless. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Have you ever wanted to live like an ancient Chinese head of state? Well, now’s your chance! But again, expect your reign to be pretty short, in general.

The game is played through a series of card battles and snap decisions. Along the way, you pick up reinforcements, travel to new regions, and uncover new quests. You also die like, a lot. Your progress doesn’t quite reset, however. Instead, you come back as the cousin of the last doomed ruler. You see, all of this is a simulation of sorts. You’re being ‘sent back’ to a simulation of the Han dynasty. Each successive attempt gets you further along the timeline. Although, whether or not you succeed in your ambitions isn’t guaranteed. It isn’t easy keeping track of all the quests, characters, and fatal pathways.

It’s Tough To Be The Boss

In fact, it took me a couple dozen runs before I even figured out what was killing me. The bars at the top of the screen slowly fill up. Which I assumed was a good thing. But no! Get too brazen with the military and they stab you. Be too nice to the peasants and the nobility burns your house down. I was frustrated and confused until I stopped trying to please anyone in particular. Apparently, good rulers are a little bit awful to everyone they meet if they want to live. It’s counterintuitive, to say the least.

Reigns: Three Kingdoms Review

Your goals aren’t exactly clear when you set out. Be the best ruler you can be, maybe. Try and stay alive as long as possible? Become the emperor? It’s all very nebulous. Eventually, I figured out I was playing towards a specific year in Chinese history. Unfortunately, doing so means suffering through some very familiar prompts and pathways. How many times must I hear some child’s riddle before this is all done? How many Confucian parables will I be presented with? So far, just the one. Over and over again.

Run It Again

While there is a lot of repetition, it also happens crazy fast. You can chew through thirty prompts in a minute if you’re so inclined. The pace of Three Kingdoms can be blistering or laid-back, it’s up to you. Of course, if you move too fast, you can end up dead without understanding why. But even now I’m a little lost on what does or doesn’t prove fatal. You can’t please everyone all the time, but the military seems extra prickly. I’ve gotten the ‘fifteen spears’ treatment a baffling number of times. There’s just no pleasing those people!

Reigns: Three Kingdoms Review

On the other hand, I’m impressed by this game’s complexity. Every prompt spins you off into a whole new pathway, often with numerous consequences. There’s a new questline buried in almost all of them as well. You’re forced to be cruel, selfish, benevolent, and oblivious in equal measure. You get second chances for most serious branches, and reincarnation is almost instantaneous. to say nothing of the battle system, which has its own hidden depths.

Very Fast-Paced Battles

Combat seems simple at first. You and your opponent have a ring of cards. You spin said ring to attack your opponent. If you eliminate a card with actions left in your turn, you can attack them directly. It only gets complex when you realize that most cards have extra properties you can call on. Like the non-combat sections, battles are super fast. If you want, your generals can even fight them for you! Like all your other decisions, this has potential risks. But that’s always the catch with Three Kingdoms. Nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface.

Ultimately, I wanted to like this game more than I actually did. The pacing is excellent, the systems are deceptively deep, and the interface is well-crafted. Plus, your consequences for failure are expertly balanced, giving you a lot of freedom to fail. On the other hand, the constant repetition is exhausting. It feels like the roguelike treadmill set to a dead sprint. And while you’re forgiven for failure, you’re also not pointed to success. I had to poke, prod, and muddle my way to any sort of goal. You can absolutely succeed, but the road to that point is a long and meandering one. If you’re looking for a unique take on Chinese history, you’re in luck! But be warned: many pitfalls and dead ends await you.

***A Steam key was provided by the publisher***

The Good

  • Fast-paced gameplay
  • Tons of branching pathways
  • Approachable combat

The Bad

  • Lot of confusing deaths
  • Constant repetition
  • Unclear goals